Let’s begin with a simple definition. Sex: this is something that’s biologically determined. Gender: this is most certainly not biological, but rather a social construct. With these two definitions clarified, we can begin to analyse how women are represented in advertising and moreover, how they are advertised to.
As we grow up, we inherit gender expectations from a number of sources: our parents, peers, books, teachers and the media; the latter of which includes adverts. Through these channels, fabricated and sweeping labels such as ‘women are domestic’ and ‘men are competitive’ are created, shared and normalised.
These defining and limiting labels became massively prevalent during the 50s and 60s. It was a time where most women didn’t have careers, independent bank accounts or mortgages. As a result, organisations like ad agencies were populated by men, meaning that the ads produced were biased towards one world view.
The adverts through the Mad Men era, for some of the biggest global brands, paint women as passive, domesticated beings, with men calling all of the shots, regardless of whether the brand was trying to appeal to women. Here are some examples that don’t necessarily scream ‘golden era’:
You get the picture.
Since then, of course, the role of women in society and representation in advertising has come a long way. The feminist movement in the 70s helped to break down barriers for women, leading to improved career opportunities and more equality in the workplace and the home. So much so, that the Madison Avenue based ad agencies were actually bringing in feminist consultants to pass judgement on the ads they’d created. Clearly things were changing.
Following this, the 80s and 90s heralded the era of ‘girl power’ fuelled by iconic shows like Sex and The City, which boldly showcased the female for all she was worth – independent, opinionated, cash rich in some cases, unforgiving and sexually liberated.
The ‘strong, independent’ woman was firmly established and she had something special: spending power. A whopping 80 per cent or more of consumer spending is influenced by women. That is an incredible figure, and so of course brands are wise to tap into this market.
But have ad agencies taken this message on board to ensure they are doing enough to appeal to and attract this female spending power? This is arguable. While there has been a significant shift in the representation of females in ads over the years – they are no longer showcased as just passive, domestic objects – it is still massively obvious that we are still a long way away from gender reality in advertising.
In today’s world, we are presented with extremes. The highly sexualised adverts, which objectify women or position them as the homemaker (e.g. supermarket ads), subconsciously indicating that this is a social norm. Or those ads, which make such a conscious effort to portray women as smarter and more confident than men, making it seem unnatural. A study by the University of Saskatchewan, conducted in 2013, found that 50 per cent of all advertisements in women’s magazines portray females as objects. That is a substantial figure.
This leads us to questioning who is to be held accountable. Is it the ad agencies? It’s a tough question to answer, but perhaps we need to start by putting the industry itself under the microscope. As soon as we do this, the lack of female creative directors becomes glaringly obvious.
Only 3 per cent of all CDs in advertising are women. This menial percentage means a huge bias exists in the work produced by these agencies. I’m not saying that to advertise to women, you need to be a woman, but you do need to be able to take a female perspective and mind-set into consideration for it to truly reflect them, and for that you need women on the team.
A recent Verizon advert for the number of girls taking up maths and science in school hit the nail on the head in terms of representing the reality around gender perceptions:
As an industry we need to work harder to reflect people’s true societal consciousness; solidly positioning it in reality, and having a balanced creative board within the agencies can help create this paradigm shift.
Advertising in the tech sector, for example, has the biggest potential to represent men and women in a more gender neutral way. But is this happening?
Belinda Parmar, CEO of Lady Geek, blogs: “The estimated cost of neglecting female technology consumers in the UK is a whopping £588 million. This should present enough of a financial incentive to shock the industry into changing its ways and embracing women, before it’s too late.”
It’s an opportunity missed, since women are spending 1.5 times more on technology than men and control 70 per cent of household spending.
The question around responsibility will always be one up for debate, however The European Advertising standards Alliance Portrayal of Gender report from 2008 states: “The primary purpose of commercial advertising is to promote goods and services, not to bring about changes in society – what is often called ‘social engineering.”
Therefore I see advertising as a ‘mirror to society’ and from what we can see, society has moved on, and so must the structure of ad agencies and the creative it produces.